Four Lessons From

The social media scene has been buzzing this week with stories about, a new site which aggregates publicly shared posts from shiny new location-based service Foursquare. The aim of the site is to draw attention to the risks posed by posting your current location publicly.

While the way the site goes about things is deliberately distasteful (it wouldn’t grab many headlines with “Out And About” as a name, after all), there’s a useful message behind the obnoxiousness. As the site points out, “So here we are; on one end we’re leaving lights on when we’re going on a holiday, and on the other we’re telling everybody on the internet we’re not home.”

After chatting with a journalist today who says she’s been seeing more and more reports of people cancelling their Foursquare accounts as they realize the implications of the service, I reflected that it’s a good time to consider a few privacy basics:

  1. Think it through. Would you share your home address with a stranger on the street? No? Then don’t do it online. Also, if you check into your home address on Foursquare, you need your head examined. As the makers of said for an interview with WebProNews, “We think it’s important to realize that something you post on Twitter isn’t necessarily private. Everybody is able to read it, unless you protect your messages.”
  2. Choose your friends carefully. More so than on some other sites, “friending” people on location-based services gives them real access to your life. I have a couple of hundred of friend requests on Foursquare which I’ll probably never accept because I don’t know the person requesting the connection. Think before you accept everyone.
  3. Find the right service for you. While Foursquare doesn’t have too many privacy settings (though you can turn off the auto-tweet function), only your friends can see your updates. If that’s not enough for you, other services like BrightKite (as RWW points out) offer more rigorous controls.
  4. Don’t blow it out of proportion. If you go to work every day; the regular, predictable period when you’re out is probably much more of a target for burglars than your pint at the local pub (especially if you aren’t actually attached at the hip to your partner and they don’t automatically follow you everywhere you go).

What do you think? Are these kinds of stories changing your opinion of location-based services or are these concerns overblown?

  • I don’t think the concerns are overblown, since people are publicly broadcasting home addresses and whatnot. However I do think the situation is remedied with a little common sense (like the tips you mentioned).

    I do get the humour of Please Rob Me. And they do have a valid point. I’m still shocked people check in with their home addresses! Yikes!

    • Ever look yourself up at Or the phone book? There’s your address. You don’t need to post it.

      just say’n

      • Two things:
        – With any given name, there may be a lot of people who come up on Canada411. There’s no way of knowing which is which. There are about 20 people with my name in Toronto – how do they know who is who?
        – That doesn’t work for everyone. I just tried searching for myself; I’m not on there.

        From my perspective, it’s easy to reveal more information through these tools than would otherwise be findable. Are they the root of all privacy issues? No. But they do add to them.

        • You are very fortunate to have a common name. I wouldn’t offer this advice to a guy named collin douma. There can be only one.

          • So you’re saying that there aren’t any privacy concerns with location-based services because that information is already findable?

  • I do think that the concerns are overblown.

    People were concerned with Google Street view, but it was pointed out that anyone can just drive by your house, and there are probably more people that do that than go with the street view alternative.
    Now, people are concerned with location based services, but really, if someone wanted to target me specifically, it would be far more accurate just to follow me.

    Even if 1% of all miscreants seeking to rob you were doing so via Foursquare, what of the other 99%? I don’t feel that the risk is any greater. That being said, my home address is an intersection rather than an address.

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  • Brad

    Good points Dave, and certainly something to think about for those of us familiar with operating in the online space. Now, if only there were some sort of upcoming sessions at a local event dealing with privacy concerns and their impact on social networks … oh, wait.

    Yup. That’s a plug.

  • Phil

    whats the deal with gmail asking this?

    t’s that time of day. Gmail aims to help you in many ways. Are you sure you want to send this? Answer some simple math problems to verify.

    15 + 28 =
    11 + 42 =
    10 + 12 =
    7 x 2 =
    3 x 5 =

    48 seconds

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  • Phil, there’s a feature in GMail Labs called Mail Goggles, and you probably have it enabled:

    “Google strives to make the world’s information useful. Mail you send late night on the weekends may be useful but you may regret it the next morning. Solve some simple math problems and you’re good to go. Otherwise, get a good night’s sleep and try again in the morning. After enabling this feature, you can adjust the schedule in the “General” settings page.”

    • Phil

      yeah that was it alright as I figured after I flung this out there not remembering I had tinkered with the labs

  • I don’t want to be robbed, that’s obvious, but I think it’s more than the fear of losing your stuff.

    I’ve learned to have some consideration for loved ones with my eager use of social media. I travel a lot for work, in january I took 5 multi-day trips to the usa and europe. Although I’d love to tweet overheard quips from New York or facebook blurry landmark snap shots from taxi windows, or tweet/bitch about airline delays, I don’t out of consideration for my family who are home alone, far away.

    No, it’s not about losing my stereo, it’s about my family not losing sleep.

  • Lex


    I’m one of the many folks out there that spread the word about I thought it was a timely reminder to people that public is the new default and that’s not always smart.

    You may be careful with information about your own home, but have you ever checked in at someone else’s home? Have your friends checked in at yours? How about your housesitter? You can’t control all the pieces of info that come together to make social media the perfect source for cons, grifts and burglary.

    The thing that spurred me on to talk about the site was that I saw someone I knew in the “Recent Empty Homes” list on the site. I already knew where they lived, no google required! Unfortunately they live in Ottawa, so no new flatscreen for me.

  • I think the concerns highlighted by PleaseRobMe are a well needed wake-up call to many who are using location-based services with a somewhat naïve approach. The way in which the website has gone about broadcasting actual data is not really the kindest or most tasteful way to alert these users to their over-exposure of home address and location details, but it seems that this blatant shock factor has really got heads turning. I imagine we would all agree that it is better for people to realize that they are advertising their empty homes by finding it listed on a website design such as this than getting home to find they have actually been robbed…

    When it comes to social networking I think it’s important that individuals are made aware of the implications of them sharing such location-based information on the internet – at the moment there probably aren’t enough warnings or explanations to ‘new users’ of services such as Foursquare about this issue.

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  • My immediate concern with FourSquare was that it felt very “stalkerish” to me. What a way to invite stalkers by telling them exactly where you are (and aren’t) at any given moment?

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  • Richard Cardo

    The people at have been using pleaserobme data to call up businesses that people check into and then having the Foursquare users paged. It’s funny stuff, but also another good example of why posting your location to the public nonstop is a stupid idea.

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